A veteran of several endurance cycling experiences, including French Revolutions, when he followed the course of the Tour de France, and Gironimo!, when he engaged with the route of the 1914 Giro d’Italia on a period bicycle, in The cyclist who went out in the cold, Moore takes on another seemingly ridiculous challenge, by riding the 8,500km Iron Curtain Trail on a communist East German shopping bike with only two gears, called a MIFA900. Moore is no amateur playing with risky possibilities. Even though his kit looks every inch unworthy of the job, the man who rides it knows how to survive long distances under trying conditions.
All that aside, what carries Moore’s narrative is his sense of humour (which is frequently over the top, and will be too much for many readers) and his ability to tease out fascinating bits of background history about the places he passes through. He is a consummate wordsmith, who conjures engaging narrative from long boring bits of travelling. Until you have spent 8-10 hours a day turning pedals, day after day for several weeks, you won’t understand how uneventful life can be on a bicycle. To convert all of that into an interesting flowing narrative takes a great deal of imagination and linguistic adroitness.
I frequently shy away from reading fully-texted narratives about long journeys on bicycles because, in the hands of many aspiring travel writers, the endurance nature of their travelling experience is translated directly into a feat of endurance for the reader. Very few writers can put together an engaging narrative and carry the reader for the full length of their journey. Tim Moore, however, successfully held my attention through the 8,500 gruelling kilometres, from Kirkenes in the north of Finland, to Tsarevo on the shores of the Black Sea.
A rare glimpse of a double shadow as the early winter sun meets the horizon….
After the pheasant, the badger is the second most killed animal on our roads but, unlike the pheasant, it doesn’t sport a pair of wings to make a quick escape. In fact, badgers can weigh as much as 12-14 kilos, big enough to do serious damage to your car, and you, if you are on a bike.
However, badgers do most of their foraging by night, so being caught in the glare of headlights is their biggest danger. Having no natural predators (because they are both tough to eat and tough opponents in a scrap), motor vehicles turn out to be their greatest predator…..thousands are killed every year across the UK.
But, the big question is: whenever you see a dead badger by the roadside, why do you never catch carrion feeders tucking into a free meal? Pheasants, rabbits and foxes will be scavenged in a couple of days, leaving no trace of the carcasses…but not badgers. Well, there’s a couple of reasons: first of all, badger hide is so tough that your average carrion eater wouldn’t be able to get to the meat; then there is what lies under the hide….tough flesh layered with a thick coating of fat; finally, most roadkill is damaged sufficiently to spill blood, providing the tantalising scent that will draw the scavengers. Badgers, on the other hand, are rarely injured to the point of bleeding, so tough is there hide. So you seldom see a truly squashed badger….just one that’s been shunted on to the verge by passing traffic.
But you might want to hang on to the endearing image of Kenneth Graham’s Badger who, when Mole and Rat paid him a first visit, he was in his dressing gown and slippers on his way to bed…..
If you cycle the miles, you will encounter roadkill in abundance along the country lanes. Wildlife that is frequently oblivious to the dangers of the asphalted road, but not all of course. Kites and crows, for instance, that live on carrion, have learned to negotiate the dangers of the road as they try to feed off the feast left behind by a passing vehicle. Pheasants, however, are not so fortunate. I have even had a few very close encounters on the bike. Their ability to assess the speed of approaching danger is limited, and many get caught and quickly become carrion for the crows.
However, one day I had one of those million-to-one experiences that involved a pheasant. Riding along a country lane one day, I could hear there was a ‘shoot’ going on in the distance. I heard a whoosh and then a thud, and there in front of me was a bleeding pheasant in its last throes. I pulled on the brakes, stood looking at the poor victim, then heard the dogs running in my direction, and decided to beat a hasty retreat before I was mistaken for the roadkill.
When I told a friend of this encounter, being an enthusiast for retrieving roadkill (and eating it), he told me I had the right to take ownership of the pheasant, given that it had landed on a public highway. So I did some research on how common roadkill is in people’s diets, and it is surprisingly common, particularly in the western world. So common, in fact, that there’s a popular ditty (sung to the tune of ‘Three blind mice’):
Tastes so good
Just like it should
First you go down to the motorway
You wait for the creature to meet its fate
You take it home and make it great
So now, altogether, one, two, three….
Having ridden across Europe on a unidirectional trip for 2,400km, it takes some adjustment to return to riding in circles…..but at least I won’t have a headwind for the entire ride…..
And getting back on the Litespeed Ti, weighing in at a mesgre 9kg, if I’m not hitting a good average pace, it drags me along begging to go faster. A bit like taking a young border collie for a walk…..
But I’ve just bought myself a new steed…..to add a new dimension to all this riding….and all will be revealed (one day)….
My routes over the last week have been enshrouded by the mellow fruitfulness of autumn, and the spectres of ghouls and scarecrows….somehow, the two go together.
In the shadow of the triple peaks of the Eildon Hills, the River Tweed carves its way from the Lowther Hills, through the Cheviots, reaching its estuary at Berwick some 160km later. I chose a mid route stretch from Galashiels to Inverleithen, covering some 50km on both sides of the valley, steep and challenging on the southern flank, fighting a strong westerly wind, but fast and undulating on the northern flank, ushered along by the very same strong westerly.
Stunningly beautiful in the autumn sunshine, I will let the photos tell their own story….
How often do you drop by, unannounced, just to say ‘hello’ to a friend? Is it ‘the done thing’ in your part of the world? Where I live, people don’t routinely drop by unannounced but, when it happens, it is invariably a pleasant surprise….unless, of course, you arrive at an inconvenient moment. To overcome that, it is usual to make prior contact and check before taking the plunge.
If you want to just drop by, your vehicle of transport can make a big difference. Caged inside our heated/air conditioned cars, when we pass, we are much less likely to just call by for a chat and a coffee. Someone might explain the psychology of that one day. Is it that our journeys by car are so much more purpose driven, that the journey itself is just a means to an end?
My journeys from home on the bike, however, have very little to do with destination and purpose, apart from the odd café and meeting with cronies of course. They are all about enjoying the journey, the widening of personal horizons and a sense of freedom. And my journeys take me through villages and communities where friends and former colleagues happen to live. For some reason, being on the bike (and not in the car) makes the unannounced visit seem so much more natural. “I was just passing through so I thought I’d drop by to say hello”. It’s natural, spontaneous, non-threatening, and it will only be a short visit…..long enough, perhaps, to share a coffee.
And that is what happened on this 52km route….
As with all member countries of the Schengen Agreement, border crossings are now non-events, barely marked by a sign telling you of your transition….but in the case of Estonia and Latvia, that hasn’t always been the case.
In 1917, they started the process of creating a definitive border, and brought in the services of a neutral referee, in the name of Steven Tallents, a former colonel in the British army. The major problem was satisfying all the different ethnic groups, and Tallents himself was accused by both sides of corruption and taking bribes….even of having a Latvian wife and property in Riga. Anyway, the border was finally signed off in 1927, the border (or non-border) we have today.
Ethnic mix is a big problem here in Latvia, especially with the number of Russians still here from Soviet days. There’s an uneasy tolerance between communities, but things could easily flair up given the right conditions.
I found myself catching up with two
Eurovelo routes which happened to coincide. The EV10, the Baltic Sea route, and the EV13, the Iron Curtain trail. Both are just shy of 8000km in length, and both gain most of their distance from weaving in and out of either coastlines or country borders. I have to confess I would find both of them very frustrating to follow, sometimes weaving 100km to get to a point only 50km away. Unlike a river, my basic nature is not to meander…
And I have to tell you I found yet another extraordinary pitch for my tent, just 40km out of Riga. For €5, a young guy has let me use a corner of his constructed paintball battleground, and I’ve found a covered niche amongst the BBQs and picnic tables….because presumably, in these paintball battles, they stop for lunch or refreshments now and again…. Btw, in Latvian it’s called ‘peintbola’….
Distance covered: 90km
Many countries have a word to describe the impact of English on their language, such as Spanglish, Franglais, Finglish and Denglish (German)…. I asked the campsite warden in Tallinn if Estonians had a similar word, and she thought not. So let me stake a claim to creating a brand new word on behalf of 1.3 million Estonians: ‘Estonglish’. What do you reckon its chances of making it into the Oxford English dictionary?
This has been my last full day in Estonia. I’m just 10km north of the border with Latvia, in another RMK rustic site, right beside the sea, nestling amongst pine trees. As romantic as it sounds, you have to accept that pine cones will periodically fall on your tent during the night…..but not as bad as the coconuts that fell on my cabin roof on a remote Belize island once. They frightened the living daylights out of me….
And when I thought I was far removed from native English-speaking civilisation, I bumped into a bunch of Aussie cyclists, all from Perth, and all on a fully supported ride through the three Baltic countries. They teased me, I teased them….but the banter got very serious when I mentioned the recent nail-biting victory of England in the Ashes.
“Ah, they’re still a bunch of Sheilas”, said one of the men. “Just wait till we get them on the rugger field….”.
It’s good to know that traditional enmity between the two nations is alive and well….
And before I go here’s yet another boring photo of a sunset from just outside my tent:
Last night, I finished cooking my meal, stoked up the fire, and invited a recently-arrived Romanian couple to join me. They were on a one year campervan trip around Europe, having taken leave from their jobs as clinical psychologists, and they are currently en route to Nordcapp before the winter sets in.
An hour later, two Finnish sisters came and joined us, and the stories and anecdotes flowed until I had to excuse myself to climb into my sleeping bag…..but they were set for a few more hours, such is the magnetism of the campfire, especially after sunset. And, of course, the lingua franca across all nationalities is always English. One Estonian lad said to me it was a joy to hear an English person speak genuine native English, because all he is exposed to is the ‘foreign English’ of the tourists.
Today, the cruise control was set to cover the 90km to Parnu. It was the infamous E67 all the way, with its narrow shoulder for cyclists, and it’s thundering commercial traffic heading towards the border with Latvia….and the sun was beating down with determination, driving me to seek respite in the shade every 20km..
But in Parnu, I found a pitch for my tent in a beautiful garden apple orchard, with an outbuilding containing shower, toilet and kitchen…..a perfect spot just a few hundred metres from the sea. And I can eat as many apples as I want….
So this morning, with a bag full of apples, I will set off for the Latvian border….but delay my crossing till tomorrow with the promise of a last free pitch in another Forestry Commission rustic site, this time amongst pine trees by the beach…
A number of comments made on cycling forums about the dangers of cycling in the Baltic countries would be enough to dissuade the faint-hearted from venturing out…..however, I did well today to find a diversion that was blessed with the best cycle paths I’ve ever seen, anywhere.
Even if you feel very nervous about taking to an E road, and find the cycling shoulder a bit too narrow, there is usually a gravel track to the side, which would give you a bit more space, but has the minor disadvantages of any gravel track. You take your pick…..
To break my journey to Parnu on the coast, after 70km I decided to check out a rustic camping area maintained by the Forestry Commission (RMK has a useful app) and discovered a perfect spot. Very basic, with only well-water and long-drop loos, but there are fire pits for lighting a fire, and a ready supply of wood….so barbecued pork is on the menu tonight….who said I didn’t cook when I’m camping?
The area around the campsite is called the Varbola Stronghold, and once the site of an ancient Viking fortress.
The thing about Tallinn, as with most cities of its kind, is that it’s undeniably stunning medieval historic centre is such a must-see, that the world and his dog, as well as hundreds of cruise tourists, will be there in their droves, following their guides like sheep. As you meander down cobbled streets, they come towards you in thick waves…. That, of course, is not to denigrate the value of visiting Tallinn….. I know it’s on everyone’s bucket list, and deservedly so. And if you are cycling through these parts, it merits at least a two night stopover.
So I checked into a central backpacker’s hostel, not only to find a handy base, but also somewhere secure for the bike. And I would heartily recommend the Old Town Alur Hostel….it’s well furnished, spacious and airey, and a bed in a shared dormitory only cost me €9. That is cheaper than most camping pitches, but then tonight I may have the company of the odd stag or hen party….and I won’t find that out until the small hours of the morning…
If you like history and architecture, Tallinn is awash, and it’s all confined within a historic centre, with everything just a short walk away. I got absorbed into the fast-changing circumstances of the last 100 years, and its final emergence from the grips of the Soviet Union and it’s flight into the arms of the EU, which it regards as it’s saviour from any future encroachment by Russia.
Estonia itself is only a bit-player in world affairs, with its tiny population of only 1.3 million, but it is way ahead of its European neighbours in the field of technology.
Tomorrow I head south towards Parnu, the ‘summer capital’ by the coast…..
After the tribulation comes the blessing…. ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. My blessing was to be hosted by Jaakko and Irina last night.
As hosts, they were everything a guest could hope for….and much more. A salmon supper, a 90 degree C sauna, a few beers, and conversation that ranged from Finnish and Russian history (Irina is from St Petersburg), to travel, to fascinating comparisons between languages…..and it all continued into breakfast the next morning. The memories of my stay will be with me for life.
Before boarding a ferry for Tallinn, I spent a few absorbing hours in the National Museum, and then went prepared for the surprise of Central Library….
the top floor is designed like the deck of a ship, rising steeply towards bow and stern, and is popularly known as Book Heaven, where people can relax, stroll, buy coffee, admire the views and, of course, choose and read books. And it’s one of the first libraries to use robots to handle and sort books.
And so to Tallinn….
So I tried another tack….this time to give the bike a tune-up, but I needed professional help. In another service station, I bought a can of ‘battery top-up’, and asked the counter assistant (this time a young man) to help me with it….
“With what?” he said. Well, with the battery, I said, I’ve never done it before. So he followed me outside, stood for a few seconds looking at the bike, and said: “But it’s not an electric bike, so how can I top up the battery”.
We looked at each other, and I knew he had sussed my ruse immediately, and we just fell about laughing. So I went inside and topped up my own battery instead. Good to know there’s a sense of fun among some Finns, at least. (By the way, this battery drink has zero calories, in case you are interested).
When I left the Friendship Inn this morning, people were swimming in the lake, attending informal meetings both inside the house, and out on the jetty-veranda that jutted out over the lake…..it was beautiful.
I fell in love with the place….I was sad to leave….I hung on till midday, then had to drag myself away….there were 90km to do to Espoo….
20km out of Turku, I noticed the old engine was not firing on all cylinders. Solution? Well, of course, I pulled into a service station for a tune-up (as you would) and a change of oil….so I ordered a can of motor oil,
but was dismayed to note the ‘natural caffeine’ was intended only for mental lubrication…..so I took it back to the counter and asked for something for the legs……the young girl didn’t immediately appreciate my warped English humour……there was a long moment of hesitation until she got it. I was happy to know that my poor attempt to be funny wasn’t entirely wasted….
Later in the day, close to being ready to find a pitch for my tent, I asked a couple at a neighbouring table if they could recommend anywhere, and they pointed me in the direction of the Friendship Inn just 8km further on. Not only did they let me pitch my tent by the lake, but they would provide supper and breakfast, as well as a sauna….and all for the princely sum of €20……which for Finland is ridiculously cheap.
Not only do they cater for passing cyclists like me, but it is a form of retreat centre for any kind of group (the staff of a small company are using it this week to sort out their future strategies), to find personal downtime, and for rehabilitation. It is unique in its kind in Finland (so they tell me) and has a refreshingly open-door welcome to everyone.
No, not on the bike, of course, but on the Finnish equivalent of a ‘booze cruise’…..on a ship called the Baltic Princess, which was built as a cruise ship, but designed for the only duty-free shopping and drinking experience on the high seas…..and it has everything to do with the political independence of the Aland Islands. To qualify for such privileges, all ships have to dock somewhere in the Aland archipelago, then they can serve duty-free….
I spent most of my time getting lost on board, never able to find a loo when I needed one, then I looked for help to find my bike on the vehicle deck at the end….too much for a cyclist of very little brain….
When I cycled off this cavernous monster, I was met by a former pupil of mine and his family and, until 36 hours ago, I didn’t even know he lived in Turku….all a testament to the positive power of social media, and the strength of old friendships.
It was a delight to share a meal with them, have a sauna (a standard addition to every Finnish home), and be offered a couch for the night. Round every corner lies a suprise….all we have to do is ‘go find it’!
The Aland archipelago has a curious status. You would be right to wonder whether it’s Swedish or Finnish. For me, the giveaway was the change of currency to the Euro. For centuries a bone of contention, neighbouring countries have squabble over ownership, till they finally reached a compromise…..
Culturally and linguistically, they are Swedish, but politically they are Finnish……well, kind of….you see, Finland had to accept a League of Nations decree granting the islands political autonomy …so I suppose, they have a similar status to our own Channel Isles…..independent but attached.
It was nearly midnight (Finnish time UTC+2) when I pitched my tent by the beach….watching a blood red moon rise above the horizon, then 7 hours later its buddy, the sun, rising above the very same horizon. I always thought these perfect moments only ever happened to other people….
Big hugs for Jenny and Rachael as they headed to the airport, bound for their respective destinations, and I wrapped up loose ends in the AirB&B we had occupied before heading the 90km to the ferry port for Aland, a Finnish island beyond the archipelago.
I had a Stockholm SL travel card, which still had 3/4 days to run on it, so I stopped by the local station to find a lucky recipient…. A middle-easterner, probably a Syrian refugee, tentatively hung about the entrance with his aging bicycle. He had no English, but he quickly understood the good fortune of being given a travel card. I left him hoping it would solve some of his problems for a few days.
I am now waiting for a 19.00 ferry from Kapellscar to the island of Aland, where I hope to find a pitch for my tent (after dark), and switch currency from the Krona to the Euro….and hope that survival basics will be a little cheaper than in Sweden….